When Does Art's High-Brow Name-Dropping Become a Gimmick?
Tim Youd types Raymond Chandler's Farewell My Lovely at the Santa Monica Pier this week.
Eric Minh Swenson
A few weeks ago, a pianist studying at Julliard e-mailed a few friends to ask for advice about putting together a recital series. What would motivate the masses to come out for classical music? he asked us. What indeed, I wondered, motivates anyone to go see art? Curiosity? Obligation? The desire to mingle with a certain crowd?
Earlier in the evening I had met the artist Tim Youd at the opening night of the LA Art Show at the Los Angeles Convention Center, where he had just begun typing out the entirety of Raymond Chandler's noir classic The Big Sleep on an antique Underwood Noiseless typewriter, to the befuddled stares of aspiring collectors with fur vests and taut faces.
Youd is 20 books into a 100-book performance series in which he retypes classic works of literature on a single sheet of paper, backed by an additional sheet. The two pages pass repeatedly through the typewriter and are later mounted as an ink-heavy diptych that becomes part of the exhibited work, along with Youd's cardboard typewriter sculptures.
He performs in locations germane to the novel or the life of the author and types on the same typewriters each book was written on. Last July, Youd typed Bukowski's Post Office on an Underwood Champion while sitting in the back of a pick-up truck in the parking lot of the U.S. Postal Office Terminal Annex in Downtown L.A.. This past Friday, he began retyping Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely while sitting on the Santa Monica Pier; he's still there until tomorrow, Feb. 1, when he continues from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Sometimes he mumbles the words to himself aloud, pecking out five or six pages an hour with only two or three fingers. By the end of 2014, he'll have finished all seven of Chandler's Philip Marlowe novels, culminating in a solo exhibition over the summer at the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Diego.
Get it? He's typing a novel called Post Office while sitting in the parking lot of a post office.
Eric Minh Swenson
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Youd, who has lived in Los Angeles for the past twenty years, first came up with the idea a few years ago while visiting Ernest Hemingway's home in Key West. Contemplating the kitsch spectacle of the tour and how the six-toed feline descendants of the author's original polydactyl pet have overrun the neighborhood, Youd couldn't help but notice the distance between the content of Hemingway's work and what the celebration of his life has become. "It also struck me as kind of ridiculous," he says, "people making this pilgrimage and looking at the cats. How many people stepping off the bus had even read one novel of his?"
In a similar way, the typewriter project cloaks itself in the aura of Hemingway or Chandler or Bukowski but is really a private journey, a ritualistic rereading of the texts that Youd experiences alone and we bear witness to.
And people are responding. Even more so than they did to Youd's earlier, more salacious work, which included 9-foot-tall sculptures of hairy vaginas.
The typewriter project "really elevated my profile," he says. "It's opening avenues." Sex sells, of course, but apparently not as well as association with renowned writers, especially those that appeal to a sense of hometown pride.
With all of this swimming in my head, I sat down to give my friend some advice about the recital series. It seems we need something familiar, I told him, some pop-culture hook or association with some ultra-famous artist or work, to encourage us to attend exhibits and events featuring traditionally highbrow mediums such as visual art, classical music, opera, performance art and theater. Just as the opportunity to comment on Justin Bieber's arrest proved catnip to every pageview-hungry member of the media last week, the decision to market your art around a recognizable name seems to guarantee attention, funding, and, who are we kidding, press coverage from outlets like L.A. Weekly. Does it matter whether you reference Pablo Picasso or Lindsay Lohan? Not really. Theatergoers might feel more self-satisfied seeing a play about William Burroughs rather than about Natalie Portman, or watching a new spin on The Iliad rather than on Home Alone, but they're kidding themselves if they think the scholarly bonafides of the original piece of work carry over to whatever it inspired. Using intellectual luminaries like Hemingway or Chandler to gain exposure is just as manipulative a ploy as basing your variety show off of Arrested Development.
What really matters is not the distinction between high- and low-brow inspiration but the fact that obscurity makes people uncomfortable. And in this era of waning budgets and flickering screens competing for our attention, few institutions can afford to promote esoteric work. Take LACMA's blockbuster exhibits about Stanley Kubrick and Tim Burton, both of which drew hundreds of thousands of people to the museum. Think of New York City Opera's last-ditch effort at putting out an Anna Nicole Smith-themed opera before collapsing in bankruptcy. Why do people want to see the LA Philharmonic playing the soundtrack to Bugs Bunny cartoons at the Hollywood Bowl each summer? Because we're much more likely to leave the house if we already know a little something about what's going to be at the event when we get there.
Then again, leaning too far in the crowd-drawing or click-baiting direction can earn you snooty skepticism from insiders. Surely several interpersonal, curatorial and fundraising problems plagued the tenure of former MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch, but the one Angelenos are likely to remember was his tendency to book shows seen as too celebrity-driven, too accessible, without the appropriate amount of intellectual and conceptual backing.
So at what point does a gimmick need to transform into a substantive discussion or exploration of an idea in order to be avoid being labeled tacky? Youd says that his work is commenting on the tourism that he saw in Key West - he's "fetishizing the fetishization" - but does the boost his career is receiving from this performance really differ from the boost that Key West receives by capitalizing on the famous name of a long-dead literary hero?
The final typed diptych of Youd's Bukowski performance.
Youd says that, yes, his celebration of kitsch appeals to the masses, but it also makes sense intellectually as a near-religious piece of performance art.
"It's accessible but has a conceptual rigor that is important to people in the art world," he says. His Chinatown gallery helpfully reminds us that L.A. Times critic Christopher Knight compared his endurance to that of performance art superstar Marina Abramovic, offering yet another recognizable brand to help secure legitimacy. Abramovic herself may be best known by the masses these days for her forehead-to-forehead intensity dancing with Jay Z during his publicity stunt of a gallery performance last year, which drew feverish crowds. Highbrow celebrity meets lowbrow celebrity; an orgy of press coverage results. But if Jay Z fans learned something new after watching him perform "Picasso Baby" on loop for six hours - or if the gallery made enough money off of his performance to pay for ten shows from broke, unknown artists - can we really turn our noses up?
Because not all fame-baiting art, music and theater is icky. Mindy Kaling's breakout moment came when she and a friend wrote and performed a hilarious Off-Broadway play about Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, called Matt & Ben. Elevator Repair Service's marathon performance of the full text of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby offers surreal juxtapositions and satirical readings appreciated by both those who haven't read the novel since high school and those who can recite the final lines from memory. Who cares what marketing tactics they use to get you in the door if once you're there you find brilliance?
What strikes me as lazy and boring is when the gimmick is all there is. It seems the standard for including a famous name in highbrow art should be whether the audience that came for something they recognized walks away with a new understanding or experience, not just a cheap thrill or a reaffirmation of how they already felt.
Unfortunately, Youd's performance necessarily reinforces whatever you already think about Chandler, because nothing new is provided. Instead, he makes concrete the notion that classic novels are somehow unreadable tomes meant only for an elite readership, just as the words on his retyped page soon become illegible and any reflection on the content can exist only in Youd's mind. The discomfort of seeing him perform will tell you more about yourself and your relationship to literature than it will about Chandler or his hard-boiled detective Philip Marlowe. The night I saw Youd, I left my apartment feeling guilty about having disliked and therefore never finished The Big Sleep, even though it was assigned reading for a college class, and I returned home a few hours later feeling and thinking the same thing.
As for my Julliard friend, he told me that when he read my advice on his phone, in bed in the morning, his head immediately began to fill with ideas.
I don't know about anyone else, but I'm hoping he goes with a Baroque interpretation of all of Katy Perry's hit singles.
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